James Watt 2019: Workers’ Research Project

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Christopher Olive shares his experiences of exploring the hidden histories of the workers of the engine business.

In the five week undergraduate research scholarship I undertook in summer 2017, I was given an opportunity to work on a highly independent project led by Malcolm Dick, my supervisor, the main outcome of which was to provide additional research towards the James Watt 2019 project, to celebrate the bicentenary of Watt’s death. Producing a final piece of research to present to my supervisor gave me an incredible feeling of pride and validation as a personal accomplishment towards future publications, talks, and events.

My research focused on the hidden histories of the workers of the engine business, and I chose to explore and create mini-biographies of some of these workers to create windows into the real experiences of the men behind the steam engines erected, and what their stories could tell us about the company’s practices and the relationship dynamic between employee and employer at Boulton & Watt.

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It revealed to me the significance of the narratives of these individuals, and in uncovering their related correspondence I was able to really involve myself in the stories, and often the drama, of the men behind Watt: their treatment, their pay, their grievances, and their loyalties. Conspiracy, mistrust and gossip became central themes surrounding these men – from workers disputes, to alleged sex scandals at Soho, to serious suspicions of piracy and theft among the workforce.

The project was infinitely rewarding in a multitude of ways, including the personal development I gained in learning about and researching a topic I would have never imagined myself enjoying so thoroughly just five years ago, and which has opened my eyes to a whole new world of historical investigation. Working with new people and in a new environment in the working world was also so refreshing to me, and everyone I met made this experience much more worthwhile.

Initially the scholarship felt like a very difficult and insurmountable task to complete, and I had a lot of anxieties as to whether or not I was up to scratch. But diving straight into the research and following my instincts made me realise how motivating and inspiring this kind of work is. Compared to the usual undergraduate essay-writing, producing a report of my own initiative and being paid for the contributions I was making was incredibly validating, and felt significantly more worthwhile than anything else I had undertaken previously.

Driven not only by my own sense of achievement, I was also drawn to the nature of the work itself – research as methodical, organised, and creative exploration was something I enjoyed far beyond my expectations. I was able to gain during my research an insight into future careers beyond education and academia, including as a researcher or archivist. Using archive material in the Library of Birmingham’s Wolfson Centre for Archival Research and interacting with the archival staff, as well as being a general delight and wonderful place to carry out my work, was also a window into a potential career for me after my degree.

Overall, in spite of covering a great deal of material in my final research report of nearly 33,000 words, there is still an incredible amount more to be uncovered, which led me to dedicate part of my research to future avenues for further exploration into the hidden histories of the workers of the engines. I can’t wait to see the project continue to develop, and to pursue more opportunities provided to me by Malcolm for which I am incredibly grateful.

Christopher Olive, BA History and Political Science

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